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We are from Ukraine: why activist Iryna Zemliana has to hide from persecution by Russia

Iryna Zemliana told her story of protesting in support of Ukraine and hiding from Russia

Iryna Zemliana told her story of protesting in support of Ukraine and hiding from Russia

The Page is continuing its special We Are from Ukraine project by revealing the stories of Ukrainians who are helping Ukraine achieve victory in its war against Russian aggression.


Iryna Zemliana, a media expert and a trainer in safety for journalists for the Institute of Mass Information, has been taking part in numerous demonstrations in support of Ukraine since March.

Among them, the most prominent was the blockade of trucks crossing the borders between Poland and Belarus, which helped promote the inclusion of the ban on cargo vehicles from Russia and Belarus from entering the EU in the fifth package of sanctions adopted by the European Union.

Another widely known protest was held on May 9, when activists including Iryna Zemliana doused themselves in beetroot juice, and that juice accidentally splashed on the Russian ambassador to Poland, Sergey Andreev, who was trying to lay flowers at the monument to Soviet soldiers in Warsaw.

After that incident, the activist has been forced to go into hiding due to countless threats and persecution, including criminal prosecution, by Russia. It was late September when she wrote her first post on Facebook, describing her situation and the impact the alleged attack on the Russian ambassador had had on her.

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The Page talked to Iryna about the events she took part in before May and the things that happened to her after the scandal involving the diplomat from the terrorist country Russia.


Toilets outside the Russian embassy and Azovstal

Since the invasion, they’ve held plenty of protests, Iryna says, adding that almost every day she was protesting somewhere. These actions were organized by Euromaidan-Warszawa led by Nataliia Panchenko.

Quote"I cannot remember how many protests we had, but there were many. For example, there was a climate protest claiming that gas and fuel shouldn’t be bought from Russia," Iryna recalls.

In spring, the activists protested outside the Russian embassy in Warsaw, claiming that the Russians are criminals. They brought toilets and household appliances to refer to the invaders plundering the homes of Ukrainians.

The Ukrainian protest outside the Russian embassy in Warsaw on April 21, 2022 [video]

There was also a protest demanding the release of the Ukrainians taken prisoners at Azovstal, Zemliana recalls.

Border blockade: the activists championed a ban on the entry of trucks from Russia and Belarus

One of the largest and most resonant protests was the blockade of the Kukuryki-Kozlovichi border crossing point between Poland and Belarus.

Quote"We were blocking it, and actually, Natalka and I were the first two to stand in the way of two trucks, blocking them with our bodies, so this is how it began. There were many different incidents, but we became very visible because of our blocking, and then the EU included the ban on the entry of cargo vehicles in the fifth package of sanctions," the media expert says.

Natalia Panchenko speaks about blocking trucks on the border [video]

This wasn’t the only way the activists tried to make the EU hear them, Iryna stressed. They also went to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to present him with new boots that belonged to a girl killed in Mariupol and blocked a border crossing between Germany and Poland to attract attention to the problem.

Quote"It was really hard to push this clause through, but we’ve pushed it," the activist emphasized.
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Zemliana says that it was after the blockade that she received the first threats from Russian wives of truck drivers and the drivers themselves, and she reported it to the Polish police. The police opened a criminal case on her report.

The May 9 protest: how the Russian ambassador "suffered" from beetroot juice

The turning point in Iryna’s story came on May 9, as she herself admits; it was after that protest that she was forced to leave Poland and go into hiding in another country. Even her parents don’t know where their daughter stays now. The activist told us what happened that day.

Quote"We knew that the Russians would try to lay flowers, so we organized a protest and gathered quite a crowd, with lots of Ukrainians having come. But in fact, we couldn’t imagine that we'd be allowed to somehow approach the ambassador, or more precisely, the ambassador would be allowed to approach us," Iryna recalled.

She said that from the experience of the border blockade, the activists knew that the police separated opposing sides. Then, truck drivers wanted to come close to them, but the police cordon kept the protesters and the Russians about 100 meters apart.

Quote"So we agreed that on May 9, it was going to be the same. Basically, we were going to douse ourselves with beetroot juice — it’s Polish borscht, they sell it here in packages — when the ambassador appears as a symbol that whenever the Russians appear, there’s the blood of Ukrainians," Iryna says.

But this time, the Warsaw police didn’t react, and the ambassador approached the crowd of activists.

How the Russian ambassador was doused with red juice on May 9 [video]

Quote"I was dousing myself with beetroot juice while being filmed, and it splashed on him. And then, it was like those stupid clickbait articles posted on the internet that are like, ‘She just poured some water in a cup, and you won’t believe what happened next,’" Iryna says.

Russia’s reaction to beetroot juice: threats of murder and rape

Ukrainian activists in Warsaw demonstrated that Russia brings only death. Photo: Iryna Zemliana

Ukrainian activists in Warsaw demonstrated that Russia brings only death. Photo: Iryna Zemliana

The first reaction, the media expert says, was from Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, who claimed that something terrible happened.

Quote"And then, in a few hours, I came back home, to a refugee home, and saw messages coming in hundreds, and one of my friends wrote to me: Ira, watch out. Because posters with my picture and a call to "whack" me, as they wrote, with my passport details, phone number, registered residence in Ukraine, and all accounts on all social media," the activist says.

Zemliana told us she received hundreds of thousands of threat messages.

Quote"I’ve already had the experience of being harassed by bots during our ‘I’m not Your Darling’ campaign (a campaign on March 8, 2018, in response to then-president Petro Poroshenko’s having uncivilly addressed journalist Marina Baranovska), but there were hundreds of messages back then," Iryna says.
Iryna Zemliana during the «I'm not Your Darling» campaign in 2018

Iryna Zemliana during the «I'm not Your Darling» campaign in 2018

However, this time it was much more violent, the activist says. Messages were flooding in on all social media platforms except Twitter — Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram.

Quote"And even more, recalling the experience after ‘I’m not Your Darling’, then there were only insults, but now, these were direct threats to kill and rape me, including the description — they described how exactly they would rape and kill me," she said.

Wishes of child cancer and fake messages of grandma’s death

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Iryna admits she has never encountered cruelty so intense as in the messages the Russian bots wrote to her.

Quote"What astonished me the most was the wish for my unborn children to die of cancer, and just the same, the way they would be dying, the timing of what would happen after they would have had cancer was described in detail," she confessed.

In addition, Iryna’s phone rang every three minutes, so she couldn’t use it at all.

Quote"Once I answered, and a voice said in Russian: ‘I’m Russian, and I’m coming from Berlin to kill you.’" She never answered again.

Furthermore, every minute Iryna received an email. There were both threats and fake information. For example, one letter said that the Russians had killed Iryna’s grandmother, although both her grandmothers had died a long time before — nevertheless, there were photos allegedly proving the claim.

Quote"My mailbox was overwhelmed with notifications of registration on some porn sites. It was terrible," Zemliana recalls.

Why Iryna Zemliana left Poland

After two months of activism, Iryna Zemliana was forced to leave Poland. Photo: facebook.com/dmytro.derkach10

After two months of activism, Iryna Zemliana was forced to leave Poland. Photo: facebook.com/dmytro.derkach10

The activist went to the Warsaw police and was granted police protection. Meanwhile, Iryna recalls receiving threats in Polish that mentioned the Volhynian slaughter (the massacres of Poles in Volhynia during WWII) and accused her of being a "Banderite" trying to make Russia attack Poland.

Negative content also started to pop up in the Polish media space, as online newspapers, talk shows, and experts were musing about who she was, why she "attacked" the Russian ambassador, who paid her, etc.

Finally, Zemliana had to leave Poland for another country, which she does not disclose for safety reasons.

A criminal case in Russia, Interpol, and Kadyrov pledging revenge

The activists blocked the border not only between Poland and Belarus, but also between Germany and Poland. Photo: Iryna Zemliana

The activists blocked the border not only between Poland and Belarus, but also between Germany and Poland. Photo: Iryna Zemliana

The story doesn’t end here, since Russia also started to persecute Iryna.

Quote"I left Poland, and later Putin said in one of his commentaries: what is this Europe if one cannot even lay flowers at a monument there, what human rights are they talking about?" she continues.

After that, a criminal case was opened in Russia against Zemliana with a possible sentence of 5 to 8 years in prison.

Quote"They said they’d do everything to find me. And they filed a request with Interpol to put me on the wanted list," Iryna says.

However, although Russia wasn’t excluded from Interpol after the full-scale invasion, the rules of cooperation have changed so that requests from Moscow aren’t satisfied immediately. They come to the head office, where each request is considered and checked individually, and then a decision is made.

Quote"It means that now I cannot say if they decided to place me on the wanted list", Iryna explains, adding that, besides Putin, she was also mentioned by Ramzan Kadyrov.

He made a video where he said that it’s bad to douse an ambassador and that revenge for having done it was a matter of honor for the Chechens, who would go after Iryna around the world.

"I cannot designate myself as Ukrainian"

Iryna Zemliana cannot take part in protests and show that she's Ukrainian. Photo: Iryna Zemliana

Iryna Zemliana cannot take part in protests and show that she's Ukrainian. Photo: Iryna Zemliana

In July, it also became known that Poland had started a criminal case to investigate the attack on the ambassador (apparently, he filed a report). Zemliana is in fact the only identified person who took part in the protest, so the investigation affects her directly.

Quote"I’ve been hiding since May. I’m seeing a psychiatrist because I couldn’t handle what happened, although it’s very surprising for me since I’ve considered myself strong. However, since then I can’t sleep or eat, I have terrible anxiety that makes me literally sick, bad news can make me vomit," Iryna confessed.

Zemliana emphasized that she cannot communicate with anyone now as she’s actually isolated from other Ukrainians because of the persecution. She cannot even say she’s Ukrainian, and her parents don’t know her whereabouts.

Quote"I mean, I cannot even designate myself as Ukrainian, although it’s very important to me. I cannot take part in any public Ukrainian events," Iryna said.

Iryna Zemliana: "I want to go home so badly"

Iryna says she wants to come back to Ukraine. Photo: Iryna Zemliana

Iryna says she wants to come back to Ukraine. Photo: Iryna Zemliana

Iryna doesn’t know how long she’ll have to maintain her isolation, which makes it hard to plan for the future.

Quote"I don’t know how long I will stay here or whether I’ll have to flee. When I come home after taking a walk, I check my apartment to see if anything had been moved from its place," Zemliana says.

According to Iryna, she was only able to write a post on Facebook describing her situation on September 23 because her lawyers allowed her to. They did it to see if more threats would follow. There was no more.

Now she waits to know if she’s wanted by Interpol, as well as for the investigation in Poland to end.

Quote"If Interpol hasn’t opened a case against me, it’s very good. At least I won’t be afraid that they will catch me here and put me in a local prison, from which, chances are, they will hand me over to Russia. It’s hard to imagine this happening, but I’m no longer surprised by anything. For example, there was Ihor Mazur (he was detained by Polish authorities on Russia’s request in November 2019 at the Yahodyn-Dorohusk border crossing point — The Page)," the activist says.

Then she’ll be able to afford some publicity, although the threat from Russia won’t go away.

Quote"I understand I should avoid coming close to Russian embassies since it’s their territory, or traveling to countries that have friendly relations with Russia," Iryna says.

Zemliana also added that she wanted to come back to Ukraine.

Quote"I want to go home so badly. I have never planned on living abroad."

The publication was prepared as part of the We Are from Ukraine project initiated by the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine.

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